At the 2006 Austin Film Festival, Michael Ian Black told a nearly full crowd that he was baffled when Stella didn’t work. This was right after the quirky sitcom marked by sublime randomness was canceled after only one season on Comedy Central, and Michael Showalter and David Wain both nodded enthusiastically along as Black explained that they thought it as the kind of general audience comedy that would hit big. I have to assume he was joking, but his flat, sardonic delivery made it impossible to tell. The only alternative is that the trio doesn’t understand the limits of the appeal of their own comedy, which is unthinkable.
The series – a filmed version of their popular comedy troupe shows – starred all three as besuited roommates whose whimsical motives and desires would flare up and spiral out before the end of the episode brought a nonsensical lesson and a return to the norm. In the fifth episode, they run over a paperboy and take over his route on a three-seater bicycle. In the seventh episode, they turn into savages on a camping trip. In the series finale, they’re committed to an insane asylum because they couldn’t go to the amusement park on a rainy day. By dragging the silly nature of a sitcom to its absurdist extremities, watching the show was like watching the synapses of a comedy brain sitting in a vat of Robotussin and melted down Monty Python albums. It was self-aware, mocking and muggy. For a college kid who was convinced he was absolutely hilarious beyond all reason, it was also crack.
Plus, there were insular callbacks to Wet Hot American Summer, a movie that played on repeat in crowded dorm rooms and the shabby living rooms of first apartments. Inside jokes would pop up, as well as cameos from Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zak Orth, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio and the many other comedians that often orbit the post-The State comedy crew. In its own small way, Stella was the Wet Hot American Summer reunion that the film’s slow-rolling cult status had demanded. It was also very clearly for a select audience – the same audience that had fallen in love with WHAS and its frenetic, wonderful nonsense in the first place.
A decade later, our cultural need for everything to get a 16th minute of fame (and Netflix’s shrewd willingness to benefit from it) has made a direct WHAS reunion a reality, and I wanted so much to love it, but I didn’t. I liked it. I’m glad I gave it a shot past a clunky, misfiring first episode, but the series – like a lot of reunions – is a victory lap without much consequence, despite the obvious sweat equity that was put into making it. Everyone involved is terribly committed to the jokes, the weirdness and the winking melodrama, but that’s not enough to create an enjoyable whole.
It boils down to two main problems. One, the original movie is a brisk 97 minutes of relative anarchy. When one bit fails, the next bit comes along to the rescue, leaving you with favorite lines and characters who absolve the parts that don’t hit as hard. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, as a prequel, spans 229 minutes that is both built for binge watching and could be trimmed considerably.
The second problem is the success gap between a scene busting your gut and leaving you serenaded by crickets. Scenes are either home runs or whiffs with little room in between, and by the nature of the comedy, every scene is a bit. There are no expositional fillers or breaks, so everyone is on at all times.
Sequels and prequels are tough enough as it is, but by attempting an even longer format, the small number of comedic tools at work (people giving up way too easily, people awkwardly talking over each other, people speaking like they’re in a telenovela, people reacting casually to life-threatening situations, sad outcomes to typically heartwarming scenarios) are even more obvious because they get placed on repeat. The end result isn’t exactly like a magician cutting five ladies in half in a row, but it’s similar.
Like their rom-com spoof They Came Together, simply pointing out awareness of a trope only feels like the first step in the direction of an eventually good joke. (There are also bare bones moments when a character writes “(Phone) Number,” and it’s sweet perfection, so the formula isn’t precise.)
The bad parts are bad, but the good parts are great. Bradley Cooper, Banks, Martuerite Moreau, Amy Poehler, Jason Schwartzman, Christopher Meloni and an annoyingly long list of actors turn in gleefully insane performances – a situation mocked in meta fashion by the show itself (shout out to DJ Ski Mask).
One of the major joys of the show is in seeing how that fateful summer started, and it sidesteps all the potential pitfalls that come with merely trying to line up an invented beginning with the end we already know and love. The stories are not simplistically A-to-B jaunts which keeps the aha moments fresh and surprising. Watching Meloni’s Gene go from Mr. Rogers to Travis Bickle is especially fun. Meloni, naturally, is fantastic.
The show also shares the same balance of the life-or-death stakes of talking to your first crush and the life-or-death stakes of being killed by man-made disaster with its predecessor. In the movie it was shy campers and a renegade piece of Skylab; in the show it’s shy campers and a corporation dumping toxic waste. There’s also a camp theatrical production to get right (as opposed to a talent show), a budding romance for Katie and Andy (as opposed to Katie and Coop), troubles for lying virgin Victor (yup), and more love trials for Gail (yup).
All of that to say that it has the same structural hangups that all prequels do. The show is at its best when exploring fresher ideas like Lindsay (the horny counselor who tastes like a burger) secretly being a 24-year-old rock journalist who goes undercover to get the sordid truth about summer camp or a massive corporate lawsuit going to trial within hours of the crew hiring a cocky ambulance chaser nicknamed pisspot (and played with full conviction by Michael Cera). Lake Bell is a welcome addition, but she plays Coop’s non-commital girlfriend, and watching a rehash of lovelorn Coop is tiresome. A sex bet from pretend-manwhore Victor feels even staler.
To go from negativity to positivity, I’d love to see a second season. Why? Because the parts that work are fantastic, and the nature of this beast is both experimental and specialized. It’s an interest artifact from performers and creators who care as opposed to consistently B- studio processed meat product. It’s also a brain-spinning cast (both in skill and stature) working with dynamite, and if Netflix wants to give them a platform that’s naturally bursting with potential, then they should hold tight. Or, if the satire of camp life is wearing thing, try to convert the momentum into a new project.
To close, I’d like to bring up the two underlying structure jokes of First Day of Camp. One mocks the prequel format by giving us origin stories for major characters from the last-day-of-camp-set movie while leaving a wide two-month gap between the stories. In the last episode, Coop points out the litany of crazy things that went down on a single day, reminding us that the show’s treatment of origin stories is both loving and flip at the same time. They could, if they wanted to, burn it all down, reset the pieces and bring everyone to Point B in a totally different way again. They could, in theory, do 60 more seasons before connecting with the movie.
The more-obvious structure joke is that forty-somethings are playing teenagers fifteen years after twenty-somethings played teenagers (and they’re supposed to be two months younger). It’s slightly stupid, both undermined and bizarrely aided by Rudd, Banks and Moreau’s refusal to age, and the team – like all their wonderful stupidity – is fully engaged with the gag. It’s often invisible or meaningless, but there are times when the age difference really matters: like when a boy-hating ten-year-old girl hits puberty and transforms in a bathroom stall or when, at the end of a long arc featuring Poehler and John Slattery, when Poehler’s Susie reminds the bigwig theater producer (and us) that’s she’s only sixteen.
The age-gapped absurdity of dismissing a sequel, especially in light of the original movie’s hallmark scene where the counselors agree to meet ten years later (in the morning so they can make a day of it), is an all-in bet that also acts as a fair symbol for First Day of Camp itself. It’s strange, doesn’t always work or matter, but you’ve got to applaud the damned brass buttons/mental defect it took to go for it.
Correction: An earlier version of this review claimed Lindsay was a camper when she’s a counselor. I regret the error, but she still tastes like a burger.